Monday, June 29, 2009

Playing Those Records Backwards

Urban legend prevails in the wingnut realm. The Census is a very feared bugaboo, and declarations by head nutcase Bachman that she will not obey our laws and give the information it requires for government logic are providing fodder for the mills of the survivalists.

Seen as an evil plot, like chlorination, the census struggles on trying to represent our actual composition as a country. In Mother Jones, a conversation on the freakish views that keep people hiding from giving their information covers the issue nicely.

MJ: Do you think the Census Bureau has been damaged by partisan activity?

KP: It's a complicated question because the partisan activity goes back to 1790. [Laughs.] The first presidential veto, by George Washington, was a veto of Alexander Hamilton's formula for apportioning the House, and the one that Washington preferred was one that Thomas Jefferson produced, and that was one partisan issue. The apportionment formula that Jefferson produced gave an extra seat to Virginia. Everybody knew what that game was. [Laughs.] Look, partisan interest in the census is simply nothing new. Has there been damage over that period? Yes, on and off.

I think the sampling fight, whatever it was, was deeply unfortunate. The actual assertion that the Census Bureau could behave in such a way as to tilt things one way or the other way in the partisan sense, is, on the face of it, a silly charge. It's the same Census Bureau that's considered to be incompetent by some people, and then some of the same people are saying that this incompetent agency is so clever and so Machiavellian that it can design a census for partisan reasons. It just doesn't compute. Now, did [accusations of partisanship] damage the census? Yes, it damaged the idea of sampling. I like to tell the people I interact with who are against sampling, "Next time you want to go to the doctor for a blood test, don't say, 'I want you to take out a little bit,' say, 'Take out all of it!'" How else will you know? When you wake up in the morning and you want to find out whether it's raining, you don't look out every window of your house; you look out one window. There: You sampled. So the idea that we turned the word "sampling" into a dirty word is deeply, deeply damaging, not to the Census Bureau, but the idea of fiscal integrity. Every other number we use to govern society—unemployment numbers, trade statistics, health care, how many people are uninsured—all of those numbers are based on samples.
The whole foreclosure crisis is a major crisis because whole hunks of the country are empty when they should be functioning neighborhoods. There are just a host of problems. And then there are the ones we can't predict. Who knows? Natural disasters, strikes, I can't tell you what's going to happen. I know it's going to be difficult; it's always difficult to do a serious census, especially with today's economic, political, and general cultural circumstances. Let me ask you a question. Let's say there are 12 million undocumented immigrants in this country. What percentage of those people do you think will mail a questionnaire back in?

MJ: Ten?

KP: Whatever it is, it's a low number.

The numbers the government uses to allocate funds are going to be skewed in favor of the stable households, rather than those needing funds more desperately. This is not a help.

The wingnuts are making a hurdle against fair distribution. No surprise there. Increasingly, those who have already suffered from their empowered ideology are scheduled to be hit yet again.

Hopefully there will be responsible reporting on the facts, but more likely, the loudest voices with the most spectacular nonsense will get the attention. From covering the freak show, our pundits increasingly have become part of it. The country is learning the hard way that it is ill served by media babble.

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